Georgia's "Maidan": An explanation of Tbilisi's latest struggle
The situation in Georgia is becoming far more volatile than it has been for years; while Georgia rarely makes headline Western news, major mainstream media outlets are now reporting on the violent scenes from Tbilisi. The gravity and balance of power in the South Caucasus is arguably at a proverbial fork in the road.
The ruling Georgian Dream party in the Georgian government was founded by Bidzinia Ivnishvili, the world’s wealthiest Georgian who made his fortune in Russia. While Ivanishvili has donated to public projects in the arts and sciences, as with any oligarch who made their billions in the chaos of 1990s Russia, questions remain over his potential ties to the Kremlin and Russian business figures, and the increasingly lenient brought criticism from pro-West and pro-EU political and social figures.
Although he came to power in 2012 as Georgia’s Prime Minister, he resigned from the office after a single year, publicly claiming that he had achieved his objectives in politics. That he continued his involvement in politics was evident by the fact that a number of his successors as Prime Minister have been former employees of his various businesses. Eventually he was granted the title of party chairman, which served as proof of his behind-the-scenes control for the opposition.
(Photo by Mike Godwin)
Of course, his vast wealth has funded much of the political campaigns and party projects of Georgian Dream. Over the decade of Georgian Dream’s governance, many have come to believe that, either directly or indirectly, the money and aim of the party is tied to the will of Bidzina and, by association, the Kremlin. The recent law of "foreign agents" in media and NGOs is reportedly an extension of that aimed at quieting discontent and opposition and solidifying the party's hold on power indefinitely.
This is why many in the EU, the US, Georgian opposition parties, and much of the general public consider the law one of the more recent and one of the largest steps toward authoritarianism and a major step away from Western integration.
The argument from much of the pro-Georgian Dream and even the minority pro-Russia Georgians is that Moscow provides more for Georgia than any European integration could offer.
First is the economy. Russia still provides Georgia with a large amount of consumer goods, energy, and tourism. Russian tourists alone still bring in millions of dollars each year to small and large businesses alike. Energy, despite increasing amounts coming from Azerbaijan and Central Asia each year, still largely comes from Russia, keeping energy and fuel costs relatively low.
(Photo by Mike Godwin)
Secondly is the perceived "brotherhood" that Russia provides. Unlike Ukraine, Georgians are not Slavic and do not share the same/similar ethno-centric roots as the Russian people. However, some still see Russia as a hallmark of stability - perhaps due to the longevity of Putin’s time in office - over the perceived volatility and relative unpredictability of the EU and more so the USA. This has also largely been established in the minds of some Georgians (particularly those of older generations) due to the stability of the Soviet Union; while things may not have been ideal, they were a constant and far more predictable.
Lastly is the religious aspect - the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches share a common Christian faith. This is one of the more obvious points noted by those that sympathize with Georgian Dream and argue that Russia is of more value. Interestingly, this same point is a core component of pro-Russian propaganda in Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe. The perversion of the West (including but not limited to the LGBTQ+ "agenda" and the perceived dissolution of family and traditional values in the West) is what fuels much of their beliefs that Russia is a "rock" of fundamental values, normalcy, and cultural stability. Obviously this is not entirely true, but it is what many push.
Kakha Gogolashvili, a GFSIS (Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies) Senior Fellow and Director of EU Studies for GFSIS, sums the bill up by saying, "Its main provisions include the following principles: all non-entrepreneurial (non-commercial) legal entities, including all non-governmental organizations, that receive 20 percent or more of their yearly funding from a ‘foreign power’ will be considered agents of foreign influence, as will television channels that receive 20 percent or more of their yearly funding from a ‘foreign power’ and mass media organizations, including newspapers and online media outlets, that receive 20 percent or more of their yearly funding from a ‘foreign power’. This strange and somewhat confusing terminology – foreign power, is used to refer to branches within foreign state government systems, citizens of foreign countries, legal entities that are not based/founded in Georgia, and organizations, including foundations, that are established under the law of foreign states and/or international law.
"According to this bill, it will be mandatory to register such organizations in a separate register of ‘agents of foreign influence’. They will also be subject to administrative penalties for avoiding registration in the relevant database and will be subject to a special regime of financial monitoring by the state," he adds.
(Photo by Mike Godwin)
While many have clamored for the national leadership to change its course, lest they be left behind by the West, others say it will take significant action to effect this change. One such individual, a retired American military officer and former senior member of the US Embassy staff in Tbilisi, remaining unnamed, stated “it’s revolution or bust”. According to the US combat veteran and former armored reconnaissance commander, the activities of Georgia Dream are causing the country to spiral down the drain.
From trading verbal blows with the US Ambassador and EU leaders to the ongoing involvement of former Prime Minister of Georgian Bidzina Ivanishvili in political combat, the individual says the future is looking bleak. With few other candidates offering any real change, Georgian Dream has the country right where they want it.
The opposition, he says, isn’t doing themselves any favors. All the other political players are either marred by previous transgressions or are too unknown and don’t have the ‘weight’ to bring in the votes. This leaves only someone with the name of Saakashvili to rally enough support. However, most people would agree that while the deplorable state of Saakashvili is heartbreaking to watch, they still don’t want him in power.
A Georgian military veteran shows riot police his veteran's ID card. (Photo by Mike Godwin)
The variability and potentially volatility of introducing a new ruling party is outweighed by the constant that is Georgian Dream. The situation is much like the stability and predictability of the Soviet era, where, while the situation was poor, it was stable and a known constant. This complacency is noted by politicians of other former Soviet states.
The Baltic states are a prime example of this. Despite years of turbulence from the proverbial ripping out of the Russian umbilical cord, they managed to not only integrate in the EU, but also NATO and other European economic and political organizations. Their economy continues to flourish, and their security is virtually guaranteed.
For Georgia to integrate successfully with the European Union, NATO, and the collective West, perhaps the only way indeed is "revolution or bust". Whether this will be a peaceful revolution like that of the Rose revolution in 2003, or an armed confrontation like the Tbilisi War of 1991 has yet to be seen, let alone who will come out on top. What is certain is that the current course is not socially, politically, economically, or culturally sustainable.
While the bill may have been rescinded by the Georgian Dream, it’s unlikely this is the last melee to occur between the party and the Georgian people.
Cover photo by Mike Godwin/MikeReports